Immanuel Kant “on the Borders” of A. Bely’s Symbolism

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The occasion of the 100th anniversary of I. Kant’s death was a colossal impulse for many researchers of Immanuel Kant’s legacy. One of the goals of the paper is to introduce one of the less known anniversary critical texts, which appeared in the Russian intellectual milieu. It attempts to disrupt the usual approach regarding the interpretation of Bely’s comprehension of Kant’s legacy, i.e., Kant as a skeleton of philosophy or a police officer of thinking. The paper points to a more systematically conceived scale of Bely’s reflections of Kant. From Bely’s point of view, Kant is the author of firm grounds for the shaping of thought. On the unstable background of philosophy, which during the historical development of thought succumbed to erosion, it is Kant’s philosophy that serves as the stabilizing base. Bely tries to highlight that Kant’s epistemology forms distinctively outlined the foundations of a knowledge of the world and philosophical comprehension not only of history but also of symbolism. The symbolism of Andrei Bely.

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If it is possible nowadays to talk about the liberation of the spirit from centuries-old eerie apparitions, we definitely owe it to Kant.

A. Bely

 The line between the endless manifestations of dogmatism and true mysticism is determined.

A. Bely[1]


One of the ways in which it is possible to grasp the difference is through the delimitation against the established authority or classic. This approach might also expose another dimension of otherness as the originality of Bely’s approach to Kant.

Fear to violate human thought, to pressure creativity, to think differently, the fear of forcing ideas and the possibilities of their interpretation, the impossibility of perceiving polyphony, perhaps even cacophonic sonance of tones of the world drive Andrei Bely, who considered Immanuel Kant a “police officer and skeleton of philosophy”, to study and evaluate Kant’s original work.

According to the Russian symbolist, such pressure has cataclysmic consequences. Their source is the reluctance to accept and clarify the boundaries in learning about the world and the possibility of referring to it.

Fear and anger stem from the reluctance to determine cognitive competencies, the boundaries of their field of effects, and the frameworks of free creation of new horizons of grasping our world, which A. Bely is striving for. The multiplicity of grasping the world corresponds to its multifaceted nature, of which A. Bely is resolutely convinced.

A. Bely captures his reflections, which will be the key textual starting points of our work, in the article Criticism and Symbolism. It was written for the magazine Vesi. It appeared in the second issue in 1904 and is associated with the memory of the 100th anniversary of Kant’s death. He combines his thoughts with the expression of creative respect and homage to this unique thinker. A. Bely’s article can be considered as a complementary and different view of “Kant’s anniversary” compared to articles by other contemporary philosophical and intellectual authorities. They were presented in three lectures given during a ceremonial meeting of the Moscow Psychological Society in 1904 on the occasion of the centenary of I. Kant’s death. The first lecture given by L.M. Lopatin [4] was the first to be heard on December 28, 1904. The second lecturer was P.I. Novgorodcev [6]. Even though the lecture of V.I. Vernadsky [9] is not mentioned with the hypothetical number three in the work of S.A. Chernov [2], the order is determined.

From A. Bely’s approach, it is interesting for us that in addition to working with the Critique of Pure Reason, there is a noticeable interest and direct referencing to not so often treated work of I. Kant, i.e., the very first published work Gedanken von der wahren Schätzung der lebendigen Kräfte.[2]

An important and perhaps determining moment of Bely’s approach to I. Kant and his works are the stances of Arthur Schopenhauer, to which he refers many times. A. Schopenhauer is strongly present here as an opinion-maker. The Russian symbolist openly admits that “there is a close bond between us and Kantianism. No matter how we attack transcendental analytics, through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, we symbolists consider ourselves direct descendants of the great Konigsberg philosopher” [1. P. 556]. The content of this declaration is indeed decisive. The path, or rather the procession, in which A. Bely, one of the symbolists, comes to I. Kant is also revealed to us. In addition to this, Kantianism, identified with the work of I. Kant is a significant aid in the study of Bely’s thoughts. These remarks by A. Bely lead us to the opinion that, in addition to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the procession includes, figuratively speaking, an unacknowledged delegation. Its members could also include representatives of Russian neo-Kantianism, such as the student of Wilhelm Windelband and editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Logos magazine, Fyodor Stepun, who was significantly involved in propagating ideas of e.g. the Baden school in the Russian environment.

In his declaration, A. Bely points out that this is a relationship with a generational difference, expressed in Turgenevism, a difference between fathers and children. One can expect a relationship that presupposes propriety as well as due respect. It should include at least a partial willingness to learn from the experienced, to consider their knowledge and experience as possible foundations of worldview and creation. At the same time, it is a relationship that presupposes different opinions. Fathers’ attitudes, which do not always go with the times, cannot always be accepted due to their conservatism as something trendy.

The attitude expressed towards I. Kant in this idea is realized by A. Bely also in this work. That will be profiling for us also in the light of indicated problems, in which the motives of boundaries, limits, definition, determination, frameworks of effect, and the subsequent birth of creative activity and art appear to be decisive. A. Bely is interested in assessing Kant’s contribution to determining the boundaries and defining competencies between science, dogmatism, theory of knowledge, criticism, and symbolism.

As an initial motive of the above contextual framework of Bely’s reflections, we can consider his commentary on the role of scientific knowledge in becoming acquainted with the world: “The problems of being are not exhausted by inclusion in the system of scientific knowledge. Science appears to be a foundation that confirms on the outside the validity of this or that internally independent philosophical conception. Such and such values ​​in science are the results of proper assigning of a scientific method to the subject of experience” [1. P. 557]. For A. Bely, there is an irreplaceable position for science, but at the same time, he categorically refuses to ascribe any universal significance to it. We can also see this in his attitudes toward the associated issue, towards dogmatism, which penetrates his thought in the analyzed work. We consider it essential to emphasize that although Bely’s thought has its religious spirituality, he considers dogmatism as problematic outside of any confessional framework. He does not reflect religious dogmatics here; it concerns dogmatism in philosophical and scientific contexts. It represents a connection, variations of possible relationships between scientific as well as philosophical theories, to which we can then owe our rational activities and operations. It is possible to observe in Bely’s opinions that dogmatism can have positive and negative dimensions, although he does not directly attribute these qualities to it. But he describes the dual nature of dogmatism. The decisive factor in assessing such a chosen quality of dogmatism is the degree of comprehensive validity with which dogmatism, or parallel existing and developing dogmatisms, approaches the knowledge of the world and the essence of life. If dogmatism is too ambitious, if it is considered all-embracing, for A. Bely, it is a negative dogmatism. This is also reflected in the fact that some fields of science seek to be universal starting points for scientific knowledge or knowledge as such, a model for the only possible formation of all other areas of research. Such dogmatism is a negative phenomenon for A. Bely, and also a threat, because it tends to eliminate all other interpretations, not only on a professional, scientific, philosophical, or artistic level. It might strive to completely prohibit different thought initiatives.

Dogmatism can precisely delimit, and grasp a wide range of phenomena and variables. It should be logically consistent, but it must not forget the limits and shortcomings of its interpretation. If it can be such a starting point for exploring the world that allows openness to other approaches to exploration, it becomes positive dogmatism. It must not forget and allow the possibility of interpreting the world and life from other perspectives.

Standing guard over the positivity of dogmatism we should find the critical theory of knowledge, which dogmatics is obliged to submit to if it wants to remain a valuable starting point for our knowledge of the world and its essence: “Critical philosophy examines the transcendental foundations of methods. The critique of the foundations of science leads science itself to submit to the theory of knowledge. The synthesis between science and philosophy is not real, but formal” [1. P. 557]. Supervision is exercised by the critical philosophy of science, while it should be noted that dogmatics can have both scientific and philosophical dimensions. We can observe in Bely’s work that the theory of knowledge is identifiable with critical philosophy, that the theory of knowledge is critical philosophy of science: “Clarifying the line between science and the theory of knowledge is important also because there exists a parallel between the expression of externally acquired experience and forms of internal experience. Scientific dogmatism will be clarified more precisely” [1. P. 557—558]. Therefore, “the main positive aspect of each synthesis lies in the delimitation” [1. P. 557]. If this principle is not considered, there is a real, even necessary, threat that “science will lose its precise purpose. Thinking is limited by the frameworks of science” [1. P. 557]. A. Bely sees the spontaneous mixing of cognitive competencies and an excessive ambition of scientific cognition as a great problem of knowledge of our times. An assessment by the theory of knowledge should prevent that.

When considering the need for a critical assessment of the principles of dogmatics, A. Bely identifies another factor from which it is necessary to be protected. He calls it “transcendentally given falsity”: “False conclusions are formally incorrect. But there are conclusions that have a transcendental basis of falsity” [1. P. 557]. It is the existence of such foundations, resting on the inappropriately determined and accepted starting points of individual dogmatisms, that requires the subordination of dogmatism to critical philosophy.

A. Bely admits that different areas of research may operate in parallel, but they cannot be forcibly subordinated to each other. That would hurt them. It is necessary to determine the limits of their scope, which can work complementary to the thinker, allow him to see several dimensions of this world, and open up new perspectives and horizons. In our view, this is an area where more than the legacy of I. Kant himself resonates with Herman Cohen’s legacy by referring to the fact that philosophy should not have the character of a doctrine. The role of philosophy is to protect science from metaphysical speculation, preserve its scientific nature, and guard the boundaries of science.

A. Bely sees the origin of this situation: “It is necessary to destroy the source of errors — the split between reason and feeling. The reason, whose highest manifestation is dogmatism, is not able to resign to feeling, it is not able to overcome it, but it is not even able to connect with the feeling. These are all tasks for the next stages of knowledge characterized as criticism and symbolism” [1. P. 557].

We shall dare to continue with the degree of criticism. The area of criticism is the one in which the work of I. Kant has left the most significant and valuable legacy. It is essential in determining the boundaries of cognitive processes, which the Russian symbolist illustrates as follows: “Criticism — the boundary between dogmatism and symbolism is the outward expression of every honest mysticism. Criticism — a sword separating thinking from feeling. Without the exaltation of the spirit, it enthuses thinking, raises feeling” [1. P. 555]. Criticism acts as a separator of attitudes. He compares it to a cold weapon cut. Alternatively, A. Bely also describes it: “Criticism determines the perspective between the degrees of consciousness. Criticism is a prism that refracts the light of the soul into the colors of the rainbow” [1. P. 555]. It creates a palette of colors from which many compositions of our worldview can be created. A. Bely likens the role of criticism to the key “that opens many doors. In its search for an exit, reason crosses around endless corridors of thought” [1. P. 555].

According to A. Bely, I. Kant is the creator of proper philosophical criticism. For the Russian symbolist, it is I. Kant who revives dogmatic philosophical thinking. The reason why he was able to invoke the rebirth of such thinking is that he himself had undergone all its existing stages. On his path, in Bely’s grasp, I. Kant dealt creatively with the teachings of David Hume and was able to emendate outdated thinking.

Based on his excellent knowledge, the detailed analysis was complemented by the unification of ideas that divided the views of Descartes and Leibniz. Kant’s approach makes it possible to “move the angle of view of the world to another level: reality and the thinking that operates over it become objects of observation for something third” [1. P. 556]. He follows this by his evaluation of the significance of the Critique of Pure Reason, arguing that “only after it we find it possible to speak of the degrees of consciousness that make up the whole range of our soul” [1. P. 556]. In this evaluating outline of I. Kant’s contribution, he emphasizes the importance of his transcendental aesthetics: “Transcendental aesthetics is the most important, and perhaps even the sole pillar on which Kant’s philosophy stands firmly — it is the main battery against the innumerable manifestations of philosophical dogmatism, which always attempts to penetrate itself again and again into the purified atmosphere of criticism” [1. P. 556]. By purification A. Bely means here a clear delimitation of the limits of scope. Purified as clearly defined. We would like to point out again that with his high degree of expertise, A. Bely identifies the place of formation of transcendental aesthetics as part of the transcendental theory of the foundations of knowledge precisely in Critique of Pure Reason. Here, I. Kant shows how objects for our cognitive possibilities are given and points to the a priori principles of sensuality. By this, he forms the basis for further reflections on aesthetics, such as the motif of the beauty of a work of art, as well as on the finality in art, which are specified in particular in Critique of Judgment.

Reflections on criticism are thus expressed in reflections on the cognitive functions of two fundamental motives of Kant’s epistemology — reason and understanding.

A. Bely determines the role and scope of understanding: “Understanding is a cognitive capacity the only function of which is choice, and the only designation of which is evidence. Understanding achieves the greatest strength and sophistication where it determines the relationship between a particular phenomenon and a fundamental principle (for example, when we derive the motion of a body from Newton’s three laws)” [1. P. 556]. It can be inferred from his reasoning that understanding guarantees or is responsible for the validity of the inference, but not for the factual truth as such. His reasoning could be expressed in the language of formal logic in that he is interested in determining the deductive validity of an argument. In the process of such determination, the factual truth of which the individual statements that the argument consists of are entirely irrelevant. From the point of view of formal logic, their veracity is only assumed and the relationship between the premise statements and the conclusion statement becomes essential for determining validity. Its concern lies in whether the conclusion follows from the premise. The assessment of that relationship is the subject of the evidence itself.

On the second of selected epistemological categories that interest A. Bely in assessing the value of Kant’s criticism, he refers: “The ability to unite conclusions into one is reason” [1. P. 557]. Reflecting on this epistemological category in the structure of criticism, A. Bely emphasizes that human reasoning is necessarily influenced by the individual peculiarities of each cognitive subject and endorses the creation of variations of conclusions of our thought. Therefore, “the position of reason lies in uniting a number of rational conclusions, in classifying them into a system which is controlled by its abilities” [1. P. 557]. Thus, to begin the process of independent creation, we have to control the material, and such is the role of reason.

These are the most fundamental elements of Kant’s criticism, the cutting of a sword that cuts clear boundaries in the process of knowing the multifaceted nature of the world and human life. This is how he perceives the boundaries of Kant’s contribution to setting the frameworks necessary for life and the creative development of artistic creation: “Kant admits to the absolute impossibility of knowing the world and its essence. Kantianism has for the first time pushed through the uncompromising line between a deceptive vision and an intangible essence (the phenomenal side of things and things themselves)” [1. P. 559]. The limit that I. Kant himself cannot overcome in his reflections is the acknowledgment of human feeling as a cognitive tool: “If, according to Kant, we are not able to penetrate into the essence of things by our inner feeling, then even much less we are capable of that by thinking” [1. P. 559]. Determining this limit can serve as conjunction with reflections on criticism with A. Bely’s reflections on symbolism. He perceives symbolism as a fundamental qualitative shift, which would not be conceivable without the frameworks defined by I. Kant.

For A. Bely, there must be a clear cut between criticism and symbolism, but at the same time he adds that their mutual determination is strong and extremely important to us: “Symbolism without criticism and criticism without symbolism would affect the world unilaterally: through the prism of symbolism and criticism we become as smart as snakes and as mild as pigeons” [1. P. 555].

If the task of the noetic cut of criticism is to decompose the light of the soul into the colors of the rainbow, it is precisely “symbolism, on the contrary, that is a prism that reunites these colors of the rainbow” [1. P. 555]. A. Bely admits that I. Kant’s demarcated and outlined boundaries form the basis for a threefold approach to knowing the world, life of man, and humanity. According to A. Bely, in the work of I. Kant, it is possible to find a starting position for the formation of positivism that seeks an elaborate examination of the relations between phenomena. From his point of view, Kant’s work can also be the starting point for G. W. F. Hegel’s low dogmatics. It seeks to “identify reality with the concept” [1. P. 561], but it is permissible. A. Bely preferred the third path; the path taken by Arthur Schopenhauer [7]. He stands on the border between criticism and symbolism, and A. Bely clearly states that this is the only possible and acceptable path.

At this moment, A. Bely openly subscribed to what we have so far approached as his accompaniment to the work of I. Kant. The child’s hereditary relationship to the work of A. Schopenhauer is thus even more increasingly profiled. It is observable that the quotation on page 560, directly attributed to I. Kant, is in fact quoted from Schopenhauer’s work. It is followed by a clear symptomatic idea, leading to what we might call the Schopenhauerian direction: “In the interaction that exists between mind and the activity of the will — feelings, knowledge as a relationship can also include the will” [1]. The Schopenhauerian line is becoming increasingly clear when he addresses A. Schopenhauer: “In addition to its logical necessity, it not only includes but also combines understanding and feeling as something that is equally subject to the principle of sufficient reason. Of course, the contradiction that exists between understanding and feeling disappears” [1. P. 560—561].

He believes in the extraordinary importance of Schopenhauer’s ideas for the development of symbolism in a series of direct quotations from The World as a Will and Representation, starting with a passage from the first page of The World as Representation, First Aspect: “In the infinite space, innumerable spheres, around each of them revolves a dozen smaller, illuminated, which are glowing inside, covered with solidified bark, on which the mold coating has created living and cognitive beings; — empirical truth, reality, the world” [7. P. 289—290]. Getting acquainted with the work of this native of Gdansk is becoming a fascinating starting point for Bely’s thoughts. He is particularly interested in the idea that we do not have direct access to the world as such, what we call the world, is exclusively a “brain phenomenon” [1. P. 561].

A. Bely emphasizes that the existence of an attitude that he finds in A. Schopenhauer, and which initiates and inspires his work, would be unthinkable without I. Kant. The Russian symbolist is interested in Schopenhauer’s ability to think of the man similarly as of the world, that is, not as a thing in itself. The accepted optics, along with the understanding of the meaning of the will, forms A. Schopenhauer’s path to know the man from within. It also allows us to know ourselves as human beings in a new light. This creates an opportunity for penetration into an impregnable fortress named man. It is penetration by a new tactic, a new way, it allows entry into a fortress that would never succumb to a siege from the outside. The image of the siege of the fortress from outside, in Bely’s reflections, represents science regarding man as an exclusively naturally determined being. Such an approach clashes against the appearance, which is difficult to penetrate, and speaks only very limitedly about the nature of man. With the contribution of A. Schopenhauer, the boundaries of knowledge designated by I. Kant, protecting its possible perversity, take on a new qualitative character.

Admitting will into cognition shows its new horizons, new spaces of creation that do not negatively affect the boundaries of cognition mostly defined by I. Kant. A. Bely is convinced that the work of A. Schopenhauer based on Kant’s starting points could push “the boundaries of different levels of knowledge and their mutual hierarchy” [1. P. 562]. The broadening and refinement of the perspective make it possible to broaden the evaluation frameworks, to multiply the contents of the categories of evaluation. A. Bely illustrates this in the category of delusion: “Delusion in the narrow, clinical sense of the word differs from delusion in the broadest sense, the inability to deal with the evaluation of phenomena in several languages of the soul” [1. P. 562]. Without the clear frameworks defined by I. Kant and those who want to use them to assess the world, this expansion of meaning would never have been possible. This shift is also important, and the selected category sensitively expresses it, because it reveals to us the complexity of the world we are confronted with. Its diversity and otherness in various forms cannot be framed by simplified models, they practically lead to primitive barbarism. It is precisely the work of I. Kant that determines the necessary boundaries, determines the approach to delineate them, which were extremely important for A. Bely. However, he emphasizes that in the context of his time, the birth of the twentieth century, it is necessary to move further: “The ability of our innate knowledge to grasp the most important features of essence is wisdom, symbolism is the scope of its application” [1. P. 563].

After a hundred years, the needs are changing, and here I. Kant no longer provides satisfactory solutions, but still is a good and a key starting point, at least for A. Bely, for new updated solutions[3].

As we have indicated, according to A. Bely, A. Schopenhauer handles I. Kant properly and moves the boundaries further in proportion to the needs of the time. This shift made by Schopenhauer is considered by A. Bely as the starting point for another shift, constituted by symbolism. He highlights its value: “Knowledge of ideas reveals a timeless-eternal sense in temporary phenomena” [1. P. 562].

He speaks of the nature of what he calls symbolic knowledge: “This knowledge unites understanding and feeling in something different from both, in something that envelops them. In the cognition of ideas, we are, therefore, dealing with intuitive knowledge” [1. P. 562]. The Russian symbolist complements the ever-present interest in having defined boundaries with his idea of ​​possible continuity: “Real symbolism begins beyond the gates of criticism. Symbolism, which is born of criticism, in contrast to it becomes an essential method that differs from dogmatic empiricism as well as from abstract criticism by overcoming both” [1. P. 563]. Continuing by overcoming is “where the breakthrough in consciousness that we are experiencing lies” [1. P. 563].

He grasps one of the key purposes of symbolism: “One must be multi-stringed to be able to play the violin of eternity. Multi-stringiness lies only in freedom” [1. P. 563]. In the context of dogmatism, we mentioned that although he does not address this issue in relation to religion, Christian spirituality is not foreign to him. We could also see clues in his use of terms such as true mysticism. A. Bely reveals his spiritual identity in thoughts about the goals of symbolism through the motif of eternity and religious motifs intrinsic to Russian spirituality.

For A. Bely, symbolism becomes a window to eternity. Thinking based on a strictly rational basis can be very convincing, and according to A. Bely, it contains a number, even plenty of valuable arguments. In conjunction with the senses and feelings, they create what A. Bely calls symbols. These are the mentioned windows for intersections to eternity.

The use and the possibility of further shifting the boundaries by symbolism revealed by the Russian author are illustrated by him in the imagery peculiar to mountaineering: “Pilgrims through the mountains, who climbed only one path to the top, can observe all possible ascent routes from the heights. And not only that, but they can also choose any of them for the descent. This freedom of choice is a conquest of culture. It belongs to us, who have reached the peak of consciousness through misty passes of thought — to the symbol” [1. P. 563]. Cognition becomes a path of knowledge, a path accompanied by demanding performance, uncertainty, caution, and fear. But it is a path that reveals captivating and breathtaking horizons, and opens up perspectives.

A qualitative shift in Bely’s thinking about the world as a possibility is something that is built on the foundations of Kant’s work. It is a theoretical framework, a vision to contribute to the spiritual development and cultivation of humanity. But it is not the reality of the times. It is not possible to set out on a journey, a journey towards the summit of consciousness, to symbols, to the extent that it would be able to fulfill A. Bely. To be able to think about this world from new perspectives, we must have the opportunity for it and have the freedom to think differently. The serfdom of thought peculiar to his times permanently destroys and sabotages the possibilities of realization and development. It is its threat. Although there are possible starting points, the fear, even horror that initiates A. Bely’s thinking, persists.

Concerning these considerations, it is possible to observe an interesting and from the perspective of thematized otherness distinctive position, namely that I. Kant is an entrance to the religious, sacred, and spiritual Christian perception in life. Through its boundaries, it allows entry into other, qualitatively different and, in Bely’s grasp, also higher dimensions of thinking. Although it is not possible to structure them precisely and strictly logically and to argue for them unquestionably, it reveals depth differently, symbolically. He illustrates the power of these statements: “This is the grandeur of the simple bottomless words of the Gospels” [1. P. 563]. A. Bely is an example of an interpretation, an opinion in which critical remarks about a police officer appear in the light of this lecture as the fitting of I. Kant into the position of a good frontier guard of philosophy. The remarks of this nature, which could be perceived in this way, are connected with the process of clear demarcation of the cognitive abilities of the subject concerning the world and human life determined by I. Kant.

For A. Bely, I. Kant is a solid foundation engineer. The work of I. Kant functions as a stabilizing pilot on the unstable bedrock of philosophy, which has undergone erosion in the historical development of thought. With its epistemology, it also creates precisely drawn foundations for the building of knowledge of the world. From Bely’s considerations, we would like to conclude that the development of knowledge of the variety of the world and the richness of human life would not be architecturally reminiscent of a closed research institute, but rather a research station with a lookout tower providing various views of the world. It would offer a space for discussion and creation from which science, philosophy, art, and spirituality could move into new realms. The multi-stringiness advocated by A. Bely lies in the foresight, diversity of knowledge, and variability of worldviews.


1 [1. P. 555].

2 In A. Bely's text, a misspelling of the word Schätzung from the title (in the form of Schärzung) is noticeable.

3 Updating overlaps based on Horkheimer's reading of Kant can also be seen in M. Stachon's study Kant and the Problem of Society [8].


About the authors

Ondrej Marchevsky

University of Presov

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0002-3951-7053

PhD., Associate Professor

17, Novembra 1, 080 01 Presov, Slovakia


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